by Stan Cutler
On Saturday, Feb. 25, a balmy Saturday morning during the February heat wave, a crowd of around 200 area residents attended a community forum organized by Chris Rabb, the newly elected representative from Pennsylvania’s 200th Legislative District.
Most of the crowd was there in response to Rabb’s robo-call in which he said, “These days, there’s a lot of understandable anxiety about what the new president and his team have done and what they may do next. I encourage you to attend a forum that will give us an opportunity to come together, ask questions, be heard, and draw on the collective wisdom of the community.”
Using an unusual format, that’s precisely what took place.
I was curious to see how he would conduct the forum. He won his seat in the state legislature as a Democratic Party candidate in opposition to the Philadelphia Democratic Party machine. He orchestrated the forum in an innovative way, inducing a positive mood in the overflow crowd, who left chatting with each other, apparently buoyed by the large turnout and the experience of a community coming together for a common cause.
Rabb organized the forum as a combination of a PowerPoint intro and three 20-minute sessions in which people worked in small groups at round tables. There were 17 topics of concern, facilitated by volunteers at 17 tables with magic markers and flip chart paper. In an hour, attendees met about 20 neighbors, listening as thoughtful, articulate people explained why they are disturbed by what Trump is doing to our democracy. And by listening to ideas about solutions, the seeds of future activism were planted.
Town hall meetings have been evolving into something new since 2009 when the Tea Party began using them as mass protests. Unlike the peaceful conclaves of civic-minded Americans pictured in the great Rockwell illustration, the Tea Party town halls were contrived as angry affairs in which participants were encouraged to stand en mass shouting their displeasure, delivering accusatory attacks about broken promises with as much vehemence as possible. It scared the dickens out of politicians from sea to shining sea, significantly influencing the 2010 election and the subsequent redistricting. In a way, the Democratic Party’s humiliating loss in 2016 began with Tea Party town halls.
In 2017, citizens stirred by moral outrage are using the same tactics to change the political tide, to reverse the anti-humanist wave before American democracy is permanently corrupted by the Trump Administration. Republican politicians are now reluctant to hold traditional town halls because they will have to face energetic crowds of angry constituents. The Tea Party tactics work.
Another unusual aspect of Rabb’s community forum was the venue – a mosque in West Oak Lane. Not only did it offer him ideal space and facilities, it demonstrated concern for the Muslims in our community. On his state web site, he wrote, “I specifically chose a mosque as the location because I want to show that Philadelphians stand with our Muslim neighbors, and that we consider our diversity to be a strength.” In Rabb’s introductory remarks, he thanked our hosts for their hospitality, reciting their Muslim names, emphasizing his commitment to fellowship.
At 12:15 p.m., a few minutes after Rabb adjourned the forum from his floor-level dais, from some hidden spot in the hall, the mosque’s muezzin sang the call to prayer. Folks who’d not left – Christians, Jews, atheists, and whomsoever – stood quietly and waited for the prayer to end.
Stan Cutler is a novelist and frequent contributor to the Local